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CURO opens door to funding, research, and valuable experience

Alan Flurry

Emilio Ferrara, junior biochemistry and molecular biology major from Atlanta, Georgia, utilizes CURO—the Center for Undergraduate Research Opportunities—to connect with research opportunities across campus.

A nice feature story on the CURO program describes Ferrara and his work on Type IV CRISPR systems:

Emilio Ferrara did not realize it at first, but his experience with CURO led to a whole new career path. When you hear the title, “Elucidating the Structure & Function of Type IV CRISPR Systems,” it might seem indecipherable. But as a biochemistry and molecular biology major, as well as a Foundation Fellow, Stamps Scholar, and 2023 Goldwater Scholar in the Jere W. Morehead Honors College, Ferrara sees the complex topic as a first step toward transforming patient care.

“Some of the questions I have been wrestling with the more I dig into scientific research are: How can these discoveries make a difference for patients? What does it take to move from the bench side to the bed side?” Ferrara says.

Just as the human immune system fights off new bacteria or diseases, CRISPR fights off viruses attacking a bacterium. And not much is known about Type IV CRISPR systems. They have some of the rarest structures, but relate back to plasmids—single-strand DNA that can transfer DNA from one cell to another.

“Other than that, our knowledge of Type IV systems is essentially a blank slate,” says Ferrara, who works with faculty mentor Michael Terns, a Regents’ Professor in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. “This research is working to understand how the system is structured and how that structure corresponds to function—what kind of protection does it give bacteria and how does it work as an immune system?”

Insights from this research are an early step in biotechnology, but one day they might translate to patient care, Ferrara says.

“Starting with scientific research here at UGA, I have begun to investigate the many steps involved in taking science and turning it into something tangible that can save or improve someone’s life,” Ferrara says. “As I came through CURO and my biochemistry courses, I found that I was less interested in physician-patient interactions and more interested in understanding the mechanisms that are driving diseases.”


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